Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro

I was surprised and intrigued to discover that Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer and Nobel prize winner had connections with James Hogg and the Ettrick Valley.
I read and enjoyed some of her work several years ago.  

Her writing has an understated precision, the stories set in rural and small town Canada, mostly in the mid-twentieth century.

The View from Castle Rock takes its title from the story that one of Munro's ancestors, James Laidlaw, pointed out to his son, Andrew, the Kingdom of Fife on the far side of the Forth, declaring that it was America.  An example of the Laidlaw love of stories, which runs through the generations from at least the time of Will o'Phaup, the last man in Scotland to speak with the fairies.

I was warned that Munro was not very flattering about the Ettrick valley - and indeed she is not, though her first visit involved walking around the graveyard in the rain, not the best way to see a place and very different from our first visit in glorious summer weather.

Ettrick church on a gloomy morning

Of course, I was fascinated, as I usually am, by the mention of places I had seen, near to the cottage where we were staying, and the way the history of the Laidlaws is woven into the fabric of the valley. Much of Munro's material here comes from Hogg's writings, in the Shepherd's Calendar in Blackwoods Magazine, brought back to life with her usual deft touch.

When it came to her ancestors' journey over the Atlantic and their first years in Canada, the book continued to hold my interest. She adds her imagination to the bare bones of a factual account, helped by the fact that "...every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections."  She was lucky to have the material, but the treatment of it is very much her own, wonderful storyteller that she is.

I think anyone who has been caught up in an obsession with family history will recognise this sentence in her epilogue.
"We can't resist this rifling around in the past, sifting the untrustworthy evidence, linking stray names and questionable dates and anecdotes together, hanging on to threads, insisting on being joined to dead people and therefore to life."

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